I have two questions about the long-running negotiations on the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.
First: Why are Sinn Féin are so keen to get these powers devolved? For some years I’ve been perplexed about this. Indeed, Sinn Féin’s Ard Comhairle meets tomorrow and the party are so keen to see progress that they may, um, withdraw from talks and perhaps from the Executive altogether.
I can understand sitting in the Assembly as a tactic on the strategic road towards reunification, administering popular areas such as health, education (in the early days) and agriculture, to emphasis your fitness for all-Ireland government – although that capability has been looking a little tarnished recently. But I can’t understand the readiness to take on responsibility for the state’s legitimate use of force through the courts and police service, which is a far more fundamental acceptance of Partition. In addition, by participating in the administration of justice there is an understanding that if the state maintains order through the consent of the people, no-one else is entitled to take up this role – all ‘other’ armed groups are simply criminals.
Secondly: why is devolution of policing and justice so important anyway? Yes, it was in the Good Friday Agreement and a date was set in the St Andrew’s Agreement, but the deadline of May 2008 is long gone. We have District Policing Partnerships, supported by all parties, which are working well and have gained public confidence, ditto the Policing Board (and incidentally, why can’t the DPPs take responsibility for their local parades decisions?). The PSNI is already very accountable, given that we are a society emerging from conflict. It is argued that devolution of policing and justice completes Northern Ireland’s devolution project. But the UK’s devolved governments have different powers anyway, so it’s hard to argue that devolution has reached its end point in any of them.
However, I don’t believe the DUP’s claim that there’s a lack of public confidence in this area. My perception is that the public seems not to mind either way, but it’s our politicians who have a lack of confidence in each other. That’s not only stopping ‘P&J’ but also other difficult decisions in the Executive and the Assembly. Maybe the last thing that’s needed is yet more responsibility flung into a dysfunctional system.